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“The Dirty Dozen” Marketing Processes that every internet start-up must master

Back in the early 2010s, I wrote an article on the blog of the company I co-founded at the time, Publisha, which was backed by the accelerator fund Seedcamp. I’d come round to thinking that there are 12 core marketing processes that most internet startups have to focus on and get working in order to be successful.

My original article had around 20,000 views fairly quickly, and I received a lot of positive feedback on it. It was included on a list of “29 Brilliant Posts” by Tim Soulo, so it seems that people found it valuable.

So to celebrate its tenth anniversary, here’s an update:

The marketing processes

Almost every startup needs to get a few core things right. They will differ slightly from one business to another, but essentially it’s this:

1. Drive targeted traffic to homepage
Aim: Get the right potential customers onto the homepage.

2. Signup
Aim: Get them to sign up for a free account.

3. Induction immediately after signup
Aim: Get the user to set up their account ready to actually use it.

4. Activation: keep them going
Aim: Ensure user is still using the site 30 days later.

5. Push them to pay
Aim: Encourage payment within 30 days through roadblocks and desirable features.

6. Payment
Aim: A smooth payment process with minimal dropout.

7. Retention
Aim: Ensure user accounts remain active.

8. Referrals
Aim: Get users to refer other potential customers to us.

9. Testimonials
Aim: Get users to tell us why we’re great, in a form we can use in our marketing.

10. Upgrades
Aim: Get users onto higher-paying accounts and deliver more value.

11. Re-activation
Aim: if a publisher stops using their account, we get them going again

12. Build your email list
Aim: Get a list of users that are active, engaged, that you can contact regularly to keep your momentum going.

BONUS PROCESS 13. Continual Improvement
Aim: Continually measure and optimise all the marketing processes.
This is vital: it ties all the other processes together.

Why your start-up needs to think in terms of processes

If you’re looking for a sense of direction, want to see improvements in your business every day, and know that you’re not floundering but executing a plan, you need processes. In short, they can shortcut your route to the top.

In the startup business I ran at the time, and in my subsequent work, I have always found that my biggest problem is a lack of time, and that this holds us back more than anything else. It’s the same for most people. If you find that you are limited by lack of available time then processes will help you immensely. 

Setting up a process probably takes about ten minutes extra effort, but the benefits soon stack up. If you’re measuring your effectiveness you can start doing more of the good stuff, and stop doing the pointless stuff that’s currently sucking up your time. Better time management alone makes processes worthwhile.

If you’ve ever worked in a big company you have two things: my profound sympathy, and probably some experience of processes. There’s an old saying, “Education is wasted on the young”, the thinking being that you don’t appreciate it until it’s too late. Well, that’s exactly what I think about processes as they apply to start-ups. They say there’s a lot that big companies can learn from start-ups. Well, here’s something start-ups can learn from the big boys.

All that start-up Big Talk about “We’re nimble” can often be code for “We don’t really know what we’re doing, so we just flit around from thing to thing without any real plan or a solid direction pushing us forward”. So the momentum never gets going. I think processes are a great way to give that momentum.

Bigger companies formalise this into heavyweight red tape like “Quality Management Systems” and accreditations like ISO:9001, but you don’t need to get that heavy with it to get the benefit.

Another benefit: as you get bigger and take on more staff, you can already say “This is how we do things round here”, and hand off an optimized process to them, rather than vague notions of what to try.

How it works in practice

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even new – hurray, that means it’s tried and tested!

The idea underpinning processes comes from an American called W Edwards Deming who’s been dead for nearly 30 years, and he was 93 when he croaked! He came up with these thoughts in America, and everyone there told him he was crazy, so he went to Japan. The Japanese loved it, and they used it to thrash the Americans by making things like cars far better and cheaper than the Americans could at the time.

If you want to get all funky and MBA about it, it’s called the Deming Cycle, or Plan Do Check Act (PDCA), which you can check out on Wikipedia, but you can go with a light version of it to make sure it doesn’t take up too much of your time.

Here’s what you do:

Plan: What are you going to do to get the results you want?
Do: Go and do it!
Check: How did you do? This is where your metrics come in.
Act: What are you going to change in the process to improve it for next time?

So for each of the first 11 processes I’ve listed above, this is what we do. Process number 12 is really this Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, where you break out the metrics, the Google Analytics, and all that good stuff.

This kind of after-action review will be familiar to anyone who knows the concept of sprint retrospectives from the agile scrum methodology that’s used a lot in modern software development. (I strongly recommend that you do NOT use scrum for most things, but that’s a story for another day.)

An example process

Not to go into too much detail, but to take Process 1 as an example, driving targeted traffic to the homepage, here’s the basic sorts of things I cover when I’m looking at this for my clients. No great surprises here:

1. Drive targeted traffic to homepage

  • Search Engine Optimisation
  • Search Engine Pay-Per-Click
  • Facebook Advertising
  • Twitter
  • Joining in on Discussion Forums
  • Blogging
  • Commenting on Articles on other blogs
  • Affiliates
  • PR and press coverage
  • etc

Each of these items then breaks down into further detail on what we’re going to do. So for the item on commenting on articles on other blogs, you’d have lists of the blogs that you’d comment on.

Your team should then have regular review meetings of the processes, where you discuss results and decide how to change and improve these processes. Over time, you’ll get better and better at what you do.

How to get started

  1. Identify your key processes
  2. Write a quick description of each process (keep it short so you don’t spend too much time preparing)
  3. Monitor your processes with regular reviews, metrics, and data
  4. Improve your processes over time

That’s it! Have fun!

Frequently Asked Questions applying marketing processes to start-ups

What are the ‘Dirty Dozen’ marketing processes vital for internet startups?
The ‘Dirty Dozen’ refers to twelve essential marketing processes crucial for the success of internet startups. These include driving targeted traffic to the homepage, encouraging signups, inducting new users, ensuring activation and retention, promoting payments and upgrades, acquiring referrals and testimonials, reactivating dormant accounts, and building a robust email list. Additionally, continual improvement of these processes is emphasized as a bonus thirteenth step.

Why are structured processes fundamental for startup success?
Structured processes provide startups with a clear direction and a means to measure and improve their business operations efficiently. They are essential for managing time effectively, focusing on productive activities, and establishing a consistent approach to business growth. This approach is particularly beneficial in managing limited resources and guiding teams towards collective objectives.

How does the ‘Plan-Do-Check-Act’ cycle enhance marketing processes?
The ‘Plan-Do-Check-Act’ cycle, also known as the Deming Cycle, is a fundamental framework for continual improvement in marketing. It involves planning a strategy, implementing it, checking the outcomes against expected results, and acting on insights to refine the processes. This cycle ensures that marketing efforts are systematically evaluated and optimized for better performance.

Can you provide an example of how to apply these processes in practice?
Taking the process of driving targeted traffic to a homepage as an example, practical steps include search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click advertising, social media promotion, and engagement in online forums and discussions. Each of these strategies can be detailed further, like specifying blogs for commenting or choosing the right social media platforms for advertising, to align with the specific needs of the startup.

What are the initial steps for startups to implement these processes?
Startups should begin by identifying their key marketing processes and writing concise descriptions for each. Regular monitoring through data and metrics is crucial, followed by consistent reviews to assess performance. Over time, these processes should be refined and improved based on the insights gathered, ensuring ongoing development and adaptability.

How do these processes help with time management in startups?
By establishing clear and structured processes, startups can focus their efforts on what works, reducing time spent on unproductive activities. This approach aids in better time management, allowing teams to concentrate on activities that drive growth and efficiency, ultimately making the best use of their limited time and resources.

What is the significance of process 13, ‘Continual Improvement’?
Process 13, or ‘Continual Improvement,’ is integral as it binds all other processes together. It involves the constant measurement and optimization of marketing efforts, ensuring that every strategy is regularly evaluated and refined. This process is vital for maintaining the relevance and effectiveness of marketing strategies over time.

How do startups benefit from adopting big company processes in a lighter form?
Adopting big company processes in a lighter, more flexible form allows startups to benefit from structured approaches without the burden of excessive bureaucracy. This method provides a balance between having a clear direction and maintaining the agility necessary for a startup environment. It helps in establishing a foundational approach that can be scaled and adapted as the company grows.

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